MY FIRST COMBAT PATROL

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Richard H Dick James

55 years ago today, 24 February 1966, I was a SGT E-5 assigned to Detachment A-412, 5th Special Forces Group in South Vietnam. I went on my first combat patrol the day after I arrived, 24 February.MY FIRST COMBAT PATROL “Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.” – Sir Winston Churchill. We departed camp, heading south on a trail alongside the Cai Cai River, in single file, over terrain that hadn’t seen American or VN troops in over a year, and was VC territory. We had to use the trail, because the only other choice would have been in the open, sitting ducks for a VC ambush. We were in the open for a couple hundred yards south of camp. At that point we entered a trail that had vegetation on both sides of it. I was near the rear of the patrol. We didn’t have any of our soldiers on the flanks because that would have put them out in the open flatland, easy for any enemy to spot, and know, well in advance, that we were coming. In fact, the left flank was the river itself. On both sides of the river, the banks were overgrown with Tram trees. Tram trees were heavy leafed, thirty to sixty feet high shade trees, affording cover to both us and the enemy. The trees could be found along river banks throughout the Mekong Delta. We crossed many feeder streams, doing so on bridges made from small trees and branches. Crossing them was a balancing act, since there were no handrails to hold on to, on most of the bridges. We crossed in single file, one at a time on the “bridge.” At one point we crossed the river at a narrow point, continuing our patrol, single file, southward along the river on the east side. I kept my eyes moving left and right, looking for signs of any enemy activity. I didn’t bother looking at the trail ahead, as twenty-plus men, teammates and CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group, our Vietnamese soldiers), were in front of me. I considered the trail to be safe, as long as they were not spotting anything unsafe about it. Shortly after beginning our patrolling along the east side of the river, a VN CIDG soldier who had been behind me, ran up to me, tapped me on my back, said “trung si” (pronounced thung shi, Vietnamese for sergeant), and pointed back on the trail. He led me back a few yards, then showed me where my boot had bridged a mine in the trail. I had unknowingly stepped on a mine emplacement. Thankfully Charlie (aka VC) had screwed up and planted it too deep in the trail, so my boot bridged over it. WHEW! The patrol stopped, while I proceeded to shakily blow up the mine with a small explosive charge. The mine was what we called a “leg popper.” Had I detonated it, it would have done major damage to my leg, probably blowing a good part, if not all, of it off. That was a wake-up call! I placed a small amount of C-4 on the booby-trap, and blew it up, knowing that trying to remove the mine could have resulted in detonating a secondary booby-trap connected to the main one. What I thought strange was, since I was near the end of the patrol, almost the whole patrol had already passed the mine without seeing it. We three Americans in the patrol were spread out throughout the patrol, as we always were. The ranking American was nearest the front of the patrol, the other one was near the center, and I was near the end. We never congregated during patrols because it made us too good of a target. “It sometimes helps if you sort out in your mind the very real difference between being brave and being fearless. Being brave means doing or facing something frightening. . . . Being fearless means being without fear.” —Penelope Leach. Shortly thereafter we were fired upon by an unknown sized VC unit. I was almost immediately called upon to return fire with my grenade launcher. During the fire fights I was kept busy running from position to position to fire my grenade launcher. I tried to stay as low as possible, while moving as quickly as possible. There were times I was half running, half crawling. Every time I reached a firing station I rolled onto my side so that I could open the hinged weapon, remove the spent cartridge, place a round in the barrel, snap the weapon back to locked position, aim, and fire. As the 40mm grenade flew out of the barrel it made a bloop sound, followed by a “thump,” and “boom” upon detonation. I was the only one on our patrol with the launcher. During the ambush we had been pinned down. Every time I ran to fire the grenade launcher I could hear “cracks.” I believed at the time, that the “cracks” I heard were the sounds of the bullets hitting and snapping off tree branches, near my head. It made sense to me, because I was in terrain that was basically covered with brush and small trees. I had never heard the cracking sound before. All I knew was that it was a sound that was annoying, especially given the realization that each “crack” was meant for me. When we returned to camp I was told that you could tell the bullets were close to your head when you heard them “crack.” That bothered me even more. The crack, I learned, was the sound of the sound barrier being broken by the projectile, a mini sonic boom. The speed of sound (sound barrier) is 1,125 feet per second, or 770 miles per hour. I had been hearing a hell of a lot of those mini sonic booms! Their machine gunner kept trying to get me, but thankfully he, and the rest of his gang, needed more target practice. Our patrol leader contacted our main camp with our radio, requesting supporting fire. Shortly thereafter came the joyful sound of 4.2” mortar rounds exploding in the vicinity of the enemy forces. That was enough for the VC. They retreated shortly after the rounds began raining down upon them. The Special Operations Association has a creed. It comes from the Studies and Observation Group (SOG) in Vietnam, and states: “You have never lived until you have almost died. For those who have fought for it, life has special flavor the protected will never know.” What a true statement. I had just lived through it in person. That had been one hell of an introduction into combat. My training had prepared me well. My reflexes had worked well, and I had reacted well, with little time spent on thought, no negative emotions, and some adrenalin rush. I was purposely trying to avoid the bullets meant for me, but I wasn’t dwelling on the danger, or being scared. I had gone through some emotions during and after that firefight that I had never experienced before. I’d had my baptism of fire. I also learned that I loved the thrill of the hunt and the adrenalin of the firefight. I was addicted! “Brave rifles, veterans, you have been baptized in fire and blood and have come out steel.” —General Winfield Scott, 1812. I had earned my CIB (Combat Infantry Badge), and could now wear it on my dress uniform as a badge of distinction. The CIB had been established in 1943. Famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle followed our troops in World War II, both in the European and Pacific fronts. He totally respected the frontline troops, with whom he spent almost all his time, living in foxholes with them and wearing his helmet. He even went on patrols with them. He suggested that a special award be given, only to combat infantrymen. And so it came to be. As soon as we returned from the patrol, we gathered together for an after-action briefing. We went over all the details of the patrol with CPT Donker (CO), MSG Kerr (Operations Sergeant), and SFC Allard (Intelligence Sergeant). We first gave each of our impressions of what happened during the patrol, and our actions. Then we were asked questions by Donker, Kerr, and Allard. We had been involved in three fire fights during that patrol (the first one for me), one of which was a poorly executed, hastily set up, VC ambush, the other two being unplanned enemy contacts. After taking care of business with the after-action meeting, we were able to finally relax, and unwind. The after-action briefings were held after each patrol we went on whether, or not, there was enemy contact. Before being involved in that first fire fight (especially before arriving in Vietnam), I wondered how I would react to my first instance under fire. I think most military personnel, facing that scenario, wonders if they will be paralyzed by fear, cringe in terror, unable to react, or react properly, like a warrior should. Training is an indicator, but there is nothing like the real thing to test a person. There is nothing I can think of that is as challenging and intense, as being in a firefight with the enemy. When in combat you forget everything that might trouble you on a normal day. The mind and body is completely focused on the matter at hand. At the end of the day I felt a little nervous, upon realizing what I had been through, and how close I had come to “buying the farm.” I felt, however, that it was a healthy nervousness. I always trusted my fellow SF team members. Between that, and the excellent training I had received over the years, I didn’t have any “fear,” to speak of, only a healthy knowledge that I was in a dangerous situation. In fact, my feelings almost bordered on invincibility. We had kicked ass! It was a proud feeling, and it’s what drives men in dangerous situations. From Book #3, of my four-book set of “SLURP SENDS!” Books #1 (“SLURP SENDS! On Becoming a Green Beret Book 1”). # 2 (SLURP SENDS! Experiences of an A-Team Green Beret Book 2”), #3 (“SLURP SENDS! Experiences of a Green Beret In Vietnam Book 3”) and #4 (“SLURP SENDS! A Green Beret’s Experiences In Vietnam Book 4”) are all available on Amazon, or from me.PHOTOS: My First Patrol (my photos)SLURP SENDS

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